NYC's first ranked-choice election is coming to Queens. Are voters ready?

David Brand :: Queens Daily Eagle

Central Queens voters may be in for a surprise when they head to the polls in February to pick a replacement for ex-Councilmember Rory Lancman .

The Feb. 2 special election in Council District 24 will mark the first test of New York City’s ranked-choice voting system. Voters will have the opportunity to designate their top five choices to finish out the rest of Lancman’s term, thanks to a charter revision referendum that passed in 2019.

Ranked-choice voting, or RCV, will require new ballots and new machine software, but those tech and administrative hurdles are easy to clear, according to good government groups and RCV experts. In a report last year, the New York City Board of Elections said its vote count machines already have “the ability to layout a ballot that will accommodate RCV.”

The real challenge will be preparing voters for a brand new process.

“I think the few people that vote will be very confused. Especially with anyone with a language barrier,” said Kew Gardens Hills healthcare worker Barry Sil. “They will use our special election as a test drive.”

Ten good government group leaders, political consultants, candidates and city officials interviewed for this story agreed with Sil. They each said the Board of Elections and Campaign Finance Board have so far failed to inform voters about the changes to come. Several likely voters also say they’re not sure what to expect when they vote in 2021.

“A huge train crash is about to happen and I’m wondering why there isn’t more voter education about this,” said Mona Davids, a strategist who runs paid RCV education sessions for candidates and civic organizations. “New Yorkers don’t know about ranked-choice voting.”

Davids and other strategists said the BOE and CFB should immediately begin mailing information to voters and working with civic organizations and community boards to spread the word.

“I think they could easily be ready on the technical side, but they’ve done virtually nothing to educate voters on how it would work, which I think is going to create a lot of confusion,” said consultant Doug Forand, whose firm Red Horse Strategies is working with one of the District 24 candidates, Democratic District Leader Neeta Jain.

The BOE has not provided a response to questions about RCV readiness for this story. The agency is still counting absentee ballots for the most recent election.

The city charter tasks the Campaign Finance Board with providing voter education on RCV. The agency plans to have an outreach campaign for each of the 2021 special elections — starting with the Council District 24 race — to target voters in those districts, said spokesperson Matt Sollars.

“We’re developing those campaigns right now,” Sollars said.

Political insiders have begun debating whether the city could delay RCV implementation until June, but that is unlikely and perhaps impossible because it is now part of the City Charter, said Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner.

The process, also known as instant run-off elections, gradually eliminates candidates until one achieves a majority. It transforms how candidates campaign and strategize, Lerner said.

If one candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes on the initial ballot, they win outright. But if no one wins a majority, the candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated and their votes are distributed to their supporters’ second-choice candidates. The eliminations continue until a candidate wins a majority.

Common Cause began training candidates and campaigns for ranked-choice voting in March. The process will take some getting used to, but it will enable candidates to connect with a larger swath of the electorate, especially voters who may be open to a handful of politicians with similar ideas, Lerner said.

“In a winner-take-all race, when you talk to a voter and they’ve made up their minds, that’s the end of the conversation,” Lerner said. “In a ranked-choice voting campaign, that’s the beginning of the conversation.”

Eight candidates have filed campaigns to run in District 24, though at least one will likely wait to run in the regularly scheduled June primary. The race for mayor and several open Queens council seats have already attracted a dozen or more candidates each ahead of the primaries.

The city has yet to step up outreach efforts, but the Queens Council race will provide a relatively low-pressure test of ranked-choice voting, Lerner said.

“It allows the board to get familiar with ranked-choice voting and allows those of us engaging in an education campaign to reach voters on a smaller scale,” Lerner said. “It’s kind of a pilot program and in that sense it’s good.”

She also said the technology changes are easy for the Board of Elections to address.

“The most complicated machinery, which is the scanner, is already set up for ranked-choice voting,” Lerner said.

The BOE will need to acquire a new piece of software to install in the machines, but the agency told her that they will soon put out a request for proposals for that equipment, she said.

Organizer Moumita Ahmed, another one of the candidates running in the special election, previously worked with Common Cause to advocate for ranked-choice voting.

She filed her first batch of petitions with the Board of Elections Monday and said she is campaigning as though the BOE will implement RCV for the special election. She is also prepared for a traditional election in case of a sudden change, she said.

“I do have concerns about whether the Board of Elections will be ready to run an RCV election,” Ahmed said. “They should be able to do it from the tech side, but the education isn’t there.”

District 24 includes Kew Gardens, Fresh Meadows, Hillcrest, Jamaica Estates, Briarwood and part of Jamaica. Lancman left on Nov. 3 to take a job in the Cuomo Administration.

The other candidates for the seat include former Councilmember Jim Gennaro, higher education executive Dilip Nath, attorney Soma Syed , small business owner Deepti Sharma and Judicial Delegate Mohammed Uddin.

Attorney Stanley Arden has registered his campaign but says he will wait until the June primary to run.

By that time, ranked-choice voting education will be crucial.

New Yorkers will cast their ballots for the Democratic and Republican nominees for mayor and for 34 open Council seats — including the primary in District 24.

Tess Korn, a recent college graduate living in Forest Hills, said she will need to learn more about the process before she votes in June.

“I heard a little about it and I know that you vote for more than one person, but I haven’t looked at it that closely,” Korn said.

Her friend Julia Braginsky, a Forest Hills babysitter, said she is a blank slate when it comes to ranked choice voting.

“I don’t know what it is,” Braginsky said.

Additional reporting by Rachel Vick.

UPDATE: Nov. 10, 2020 at 3:03 p.m. — This story has been updated with information from the Campaign Finance Board.

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